Tennessee Premises Liability – Identification of cause of fall

Posted on Jul 10 2012 9:37AM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

The recent Tennessee Court of Appeals decision of Mae Coleman v. South Tennessee Oil, Inc., d/b/a Quick Mart,, M2011-01329-COA-R3-CV, 2012 WL 2628617 (filed July 5, 2012) discussed the requirements for summary judgment in a premises liability case.  The Coleman case involved an incident that occurred on January 19, 2006.  As a result, the court used the standard for summary judgment in Hannan v. Alltel Publ'g, Co., 270 S.W.3d 1 (Tenn. 2008).


In the Coleman case, the plaintiff, Ms. Coleman, tripped on something in a parking lot which caused her to fall.  She sustained severe injuries.  There are photographs of the parking lot that apparently show uneven and cracked parts of the pavement on the defendant's property.  The plaintiff asserted in the complaint that the uneven pavement caused the plaintiff to fall. 


During the course of her deposition, Ms. Coleman, however, testified in an uncertain manner as to the actual cause of her fall.  She testified in her deposition as follows (these are excerpted portions from the opinion):


Q. Okay. Do you recall at the time you fell what caused you to fall?

A. All I know if that I come around there, was going inside, and the next thing I know, my foot went—hit something and I went down.  And I'm thinking it was—from this right here—the best—now, don't hold me to this. This right here—which one was it? Because I'd be coming to the front door. All I know is I came around the pump there, where it was at. And then like I said, my foot hit something and I went down.


Q. Okay. So from these three pictures that you've shown me or I've shown you rather, you can't tell on any of those pictures—

A. Where I was at? No.

Q. And you can't tell me if you tripped on anything in those pictures, can you?


A. All I know is my foot hit something on that ground and I came up, and I—you know—no. Do any of these pictures—if they tell you exactly where I fell at, no.... All I know is my foot hit something on that, and I went down.


(Coleman at p. 1, 2).  As a result of this deposition testimony, the defendant Quick Mart filed a motion for summary judgment asserting Ms. Coleman could not prove causation due to her vague assertions in her deposition.  Further, she could not identify specifically what caused her to fall in the parking lot and therefore the defendant was entitled to summary judgment under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56. 


The defendant, on appeal, argued that the plaintiff was required to establish with "specificity" or "exactitude" what caused her fall.  The Court of Appeals, however, found there is no Tennessee case law that requires this level of specificity in a premises liability case.  The key issue, therefore, is whether the defendant negated or showed the plaintiff could not prove at trial that "the defective pavement was the cause of her injuries."  (Coleman at p. 5).  The Court found that Quick Mart's summary judgment motion did not affirmatively negate this essential element even though Ms. Coleman's testimony was vague on the exact cause of her fall.  As a result, even though Ms. Coleman provided weak deposition testimony on the causation issue, this weakness in her testimony was not sufficient to shift the burden to the plaintiff under Hannan.


The Tennessee Court of Appeals therefore held "we conclude that Quick Mart failed to submit a properly supported motion for summary judgment that negated an essential element of Ms. Coleman's claim or showed that Ms. Coleman will be unable to prove her claim at trial." (Coleman at p. 8).  The Court did not discuss whether it would have a different opinion under the new statute found in T.C.A. § 20-16-101.  In 2011 the Tennessee legislature passed Public Chapter 498 that was signed into law by Governor Haslam on June 16, 2011.  This statute provides:


In motions for summary judgment in any civil action in Tennessee, the moving party who does not bear the burden of proof at trial shall prevail on its motion for summary judgment if it:

(1) Submits affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim; or

(2) Demonstrates to the court that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.


Based on the wording in this statute, the result of the motion for summary judgment in the Coleman case may have been different if T.C.A. § 20-16-101 was in effect for this case.  The clear legislative intent of the new statute is found in the actual language of the bill which states: 


WHEREAS, the Tennessee Supreme Court announced a summary judgment standard in Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co., 270 S.W. 3d 1 (Tenn. 2008) for a party who does not bear the burden of proof at trial to obtain summary judgment; and

WHEREAS, this standard differs from the standard applied by Tennessee federal courts in cases in which the federal summary judgment standard applies; and

WHEREAS, this higher Hannan standard results in fewer cases being resolved by summary judgment in state court, increasing the litigation costs of litigants in Tennessee state courts and encouraging forum shopping; and

WHEREAS, the purpose of this legislation is to overrule the summary judgment standard for parties who do not bear the burden of proof at trial set forth in Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co., its progeny, and the cases relied on in Hannan;


This language makes it clear that the Tennessee legislature intended to overrule the Hannan case and make it easier for defendants to obtain summary judgment in Tennessee.  Further, all motions for summary judgment that are filed by defendants for a case where this statute is in effect (it took effect for all actions filed on or after July 1, 2011) should cite to this specific legislative history in support of the motion for summary judgment.

TAGS: Negligence, Summary Judgment, Tennessee Premises Liability
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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